Let’s Argue About Downtown Housing: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/12/14

13 May

City Hall was, apparently, the place to be in Duluth on Monday night. Most of the residents of Park Point relocated themselves to the Council Chamber, with a number wearing red “danger” tape armbands in protest of the proposed small area plan for the spit of land; it looked to be the most raucous crowd in years. President Krug, however, decided to deprive us of all the drama by announcing the plan would be tabled before the meeting even started. The Park Pointers moved their powwow out into the hallway, though a sizeable crowd remained in the chamber. The tabling of the measure meant we only had to deal with a 2-hour, 45-minute meeting instead of going past midnight.

As has been the case recently, there was a substantial, eclectic group of citizen speakers. Two came to talk up a “meet on the street” sort of block party planned for 3rd St. in Lincoln Park on July 13, where they hoped to build community; another highlighted a few events related to Bus, Bike, and Walk Month. A familiar visitor also came up to demand further information on the direction of the conversation on street repair, repeating his opposition to any tax increases to pay for it.

There was a whole heap of resolutions related to the new maurices Tower in Downtown Duluth. (Useless grammatical fact for the day: maurices is not capitalized.) They all passed unanimously, though President Krug abstained due to personal connections, and there was much celebration of the project and all of its ancillary benefits. Two Councilors, despite noting their general leeriness of excessing Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, said this was very good use of TIF Districts.

The highlights of the night were three requests to endorse housing projects seeking state low-income housing credits for downtown developments. Planning Director Keith Hamre explained that they amounted to ten-year tax credits, and Councilor Larson added that this was an application process that did not cost the city, but instead asked the Council to endorse project readiness.

The first plan on the docket was the redevelopment of the existing Gateway Tower, and it was the least controversial of the three. Councilor Julsrud noted that maintaining the Gateway was much cheaper than building things from scratch, while Councilor Filipovich pointed out its “sheer mass size,” with 150 units in the building, including 50 for low-income housing. Councilor Gardner expressed tepid support due to some concerns about the management, while Councilor Folse foresaw nothing but debt. Councilor Hanson claimed he was unable to “do due diligence” on the project based on the information presented, and said the plan was “not firm in foundation.” Carla Schneider, the deputy director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, tried to explain how the ownership consortium would work, but failed to convince Councilor Hanson it was “shovel ready,” and he joined Councilor Fosle in opposition. The plan passed, 7-2.

Next up was a proposal to redevelop the historic Burnham Apartments, better known as the old county jail located behind Government Plaza, into low-income housing. On this project, the Councilors were almost all of one mind: the design required a lot more work before it would earn Council support. Councilor Larson said she hadn’t seen much of anything on it before tonight, while Councilor Gardner voiced concerns about the location. Still, the Councilors had kind words for the developer, a Mr. Grant Carlson, and invited him to work with them to produce a better future plan for his property. Councilor Fosle added that he’d been a “big meanie” who’d voted to have the building torn down some years before, but was pleasantly surprised there was interest in using it now; Councilor Hanson thought enough of Mr. Carlson that he ventured to be the lone vote in favor of the plan, which failed, 8-1.

The final and most controversial project involved the burned-out Pastoret Terrace, better known as the old Kozy Bar. A plan by the same developer (led by former city planner Mike Conlan) failed the previous year; this modified plan had considerably more “workforce housing” than last year’s, which was primarily low-income units. Given the building’s history and place in its neighborhood, there were plenty of strong opinions; as Councilor Gardner noted, the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East has been a “problem since 1918.” Councilor Sipress reminded everyone of the building’s architectural value, while Councilor Fosle again insisted that he would never support anything owned by Eric Ringsred, as Mr. Ringsred had once suggested the City was culpable for his business partner’s suicide. Councilor Julsrud echoed the worries about Mr. Ringsred, saying the past did not predict a happy future; as much as she wanted to be hopeful and see something “literally rise from the ashes” on that site, she said that “we can hope all we want, but we’re the City Council, not a church.”

There were concerns about the project’s role in a broader vision for downtown Duluth as well. CAO Montgomery said the Administration would prefer market-rate housing on the site, and posed a broader question on the concentration of housing downtown. Councilor Hanson picked up on this theme, saying low-income housing was far too heavily concentrated in that area; “is that all we have going for us?” he asked, and wondered about the impact on the police. He also shared a “personal antidote” [sic] about what he saw as inconsistent standards in the city’s evaluation of blighted properties.

The project’s chief defender was Councilor Gardner, who commended the developers for having their “ducks in a row” this time around. She said the Pastoret building was in jeopardy after several harsh winters in its burned-out state, and that its developers ought to be held to the same standards as the others. She noted that the immediate neighborhood was “practically dead,” and bemoaned some of the unsavory activities taking place at the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial across the street. Councilor Filipovich joined her in exhorting the Council to pass the plan, noting it was their big chance to revitalize the corner, and that the LLC in charge of the project had a “proven track record.” Councilor Sipress noted that there was plenty of focus on low-income and more upscale housing in Duluth, but that the working class was largely being left out, and the majority of the Pastoret units, aimed at single individuals making 25 to 30 thousand dollars a year, would help fill that need.

There was an amendment to give this particular a top priority tag; this was mostly forgotten as the Councilors rushed to debate the merits of the project, and in the end it ultimately failed 6-3, with Councilor Larson explaining that it might be “confusing,” and that the state should do its due diligence to vet the projects. The project itself passed by a 6-3 margin, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, and Hanson in opposition.

There was also a pair of items on the agenda that were not immediate City Council business, per se: a resolution supporting the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) moving through the state legislature, and another taking a stand against a proposed Canadian nuclear waste facility near Lake Huron (thus potentially polluting the Great Lakes). Both issues brought out several passionate speakers who all asked the Council to move the initiatives forward. The resolutions prompted the expected grumblings from Councilor Fosle, who said they were out of the Council’s jurisdiction, and would be better advocated by direct personal letter; while he’d play along tonight, he said, he’d never support such a measure again. The WESA was made somewhat more confusing by the fact that it had already been signed into law the day before by Governor Dayton; for her part, Councilor Gardner claimed it did not go far enough in expanding things such as child care and sick leave. Still, it brought out some impassioned defenses by several Councilors, including a personal antidote (sorry) from Councilor Julsrud, who told of her father’s refusal to allow her to work in the family construction business when she was 18. Councilor Sipress told of the process behind the nuclear waste resolution, saying Duluth would be one of many Great Lakes cities and organizations to join the protest, and that it would be passed along to numerous Canadian governmental and regulatory bodies during a required comment period, not “tossed in a wastebasket,” as Councilor Fosle said it would. The WESA resolution passed unanimously, and only President Krug voted against the nuclear waste resolution, labeling it “too broad.”

By the end of the meeting President Krug was trying to hustle things through to end the long night, and even Councilor Gardner was “running out of words.” A grant related to something called “tactical urbanism” was deemed “cool” and passed unanimously, as did a couple of land transfers and a thrilling sprinkler ordinance. Councilor Larson took a brief moment to talk up many things happening at the library, including a functioning elevator (hooray!), a new digital microfilm machine, and a novel seed library idea.

Despite everyone’s exhaustion, there was a lengthy and rather contentious comment period at the end that involved much muttering. Councilor Larson updated everyone on the city’s street repair plan, explaining that it was an $8.50 per month fee that will sunset, and that the unpopular street light fee will also be phased out. This had CAO Montgomery wondering how exactly the Council planned to replace these funds if they seriously wanted to focus on road repair, leading Councilor Gardner to scoff at the notion that the city couldn’t come up with those $2.1 million over three years. In response, CAO Montgomery warned that this was turning into the casino issue all over again.

This also led to a spat between President Krug and Councilor Hanson, who was frustrated by what he believed to be a lack of information and transparency in the whole street planning process. He said the council was “not inclusive,” with people leading certain projects while others were left out, and wanted to know where he could get his questions answered. President Krug, tired of it all, gave a halfhearted lecture before finally pushing everyone to the exits. (It was, frankly, a difficult meeting for Councilor Hanson, who gave the impression that he was in over his head on several issues. To his credit, he is aware of this, and seems to want to do something about it.)

To wrap things up, I apologize for any typos, as I wrote most of this while also watching the Wild game and intermittently yelling things and hyperventilating. Damn you, Patrick Kane.

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